The Western Pacific was perhaps a railroad that should have never been
built and had Collis P. Huntington and the railroad magnates of
California had their way it certainly would not have! The WP was the
longtime dream of Arthur Keddie who wanted to construct a railroad
through the Feather River Canyon of Northern California. For nearly 80
years the WP moved freight through its well engineered, albeit high
maintenance, main line between San Francisco/Oakland and Salt Lake City
although its small size (just over 1,000 of total mileage) and being
surrounded by giants ultimately cost it its independence (the railroad,
however, was a tenacious fighter). For its small size, however, the
railroad was well known for a number of things including being one
component of the highly successful California Zephyr passenger train
and its Keddie Wye at Keddie, CA (which features a magnificent
split-bridge where its Inside Gateway, a line that diverged from its
Salt Lake City main line, connected to Bieber, California and a link
with the Great Northern).
WP’s beginnings are symbolic of the railroad as a whole; always
fighting for respect and survival. Aurthur Keddie tried two times to
begin railroads through the Feather River Canyon and both times
Huntington and other tycoons denied him, bent on keeping him out of the
region they believed was theirs (the 1869 Oroville & Virginia City
and 1889 San Francisco & Great Salt Lake). To do so they used their
near-infinite resources to pool power in terms of political means to
prevent Keddie from receiving either money
or land to build his railroads. However, Keddie was just as relentless
as his foes to get his railroad built and a near innocent encounter
with another mogul finally gave him the break he needed. George Gould, son of the legendary Jay Gould, had received his
father’s inheritance and was seeking to build a railroad (to do this he
had created two companies the Indian Valley and Butte & Plumas)
through the same canyon as Keddie (Keddie had recently started a new
railroad known as the Stockton & Beckwith Pass).
Feather River Express: (Oakland - Portola, California)
Royal Gorge: (Oakland - St. Louis)
Scenic Limited: (Oakland - St. Louis)
Zephyrette: (Oakland - Salt Lake City)
With none of the Big Four (which included Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Leland Stanford; they all literally owned California railroading at that time) interested in allying with them, Gould joined up with Keddie and the two set about their task creating the Western Pacific Railway in March of 1903, nearly 40 years since Keddie’s dream had begun. Now unable to prevent the railroad from being built Huntington could do little except watch when it was completed in the late fall 1909 linking San Francisco with Salt Lake City. Over 20 years later the railroad built a northern line, known as the Inside Gateway, from Keddie to Bieber, CA to connect with the Great Northern, thereby giving it north-south traffic as well as its famous Keddie Wye.
While the railroad held spectacular scenery and a main line that
featured the lowest grades through the Sierra Range, it was rather
mediocre from a profitability standpoint, at best through the first half
of the 20th century. Not only did the unstable geography through the
Feather River Canyon becoming a frustrating problem for the WP with numerous mud and rock slides occurring over the years but
also traffic for the WP was hard to come by with few branch lines and
other roads already well entrenched in the markets the railroad served (the WP would go through a series of bankruptcies during its early years). Following World War II, however, the Western Pacific finally managed to achieve some consistency and success gaining traffic and upgrading its property. It also held excellent presidents starting during the 1950s with Frederic B. Whitman, which brought continued and upgraded improvements to the railroad and its property.
Other presidents such as Alfred Pearlman, an excellent manager
and railroader, followed Whitman and carried the company
through the 1970s bringing additional efficiencies and progress to the
railroad. It was the 1980 deregulation of the rail industry that ironically did the WP in. Ultimately the railroad’s size and being surrounded by giants such as Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, and Burlington Northern resulted in the railroad being unable to compete with the free rate-making now available to these railroads (meaning the larger lines could haul traffic between many more and larger points than the WP resulting in them being able to offer cheaper rates than the WP). Naturally it did not take long for the railroad to be forced into a decision, none of which would allow it to remain independent. Thus, the Union Pacific would be the road that would offer to purchase the WP and this it did merging the railroad into its system just before Christmas, 1982.
Today, the Western Pacific may no longer be an operating railroad but its legacy
lives on in its main lines, the Inside Gateway and Feather River Route,
which serve as important aspects of Union Pacific's gigantic system. It's jointly operated California Zephyr
with the Denver & Rio Grande Western and Chicago, Burlington &
Quincy also lives on under Amtrak, albeit following a route somewhat different than the original. So for WP fans, all is not lost as UP
locomotives still ply the Feather River Canyon and photographers can
still catch freights on the famous Keddie Wye. Finally, be sure and catch UP's heritage WP unit, SD70ACe #1983 which wears an inspired livery of the railroad.
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